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An Anthropology of Smartphones: Communication, Ageing and Health

Explore how smartphones have affected our lives by using comparative anthropology as a method of research.

1,856 enrolled on this course

Interior of a church with a painting of the Christ, surrounded by people aiming their smartphones at the image. These are Peruvian migrants honoring in Chile the Lord of Miracles, the most revered Peruvian religious icon.

An Anthropology of Smartphones: Communication, Ageing and Health

1,856 enrolled on this course

  • 3 weeks

  • 4 hours per week

  • Digital certificate when eligible

  • Open level

Find out more about how to join this course

Discover digital anthropology and the relationship between technology and ageing

This course will develop your understanding of the concept of digital anthropology as you explore how smartphones have transformed our daily lives and how they can be used productively.

Learn how smartphones have changed our lives

Through ethnographic research findings, you’ll explore the potential consequences of using a smartphone every day.

You’ll examine the effect of smartphones on human relationships and participation in cultural life, as well as touch upon the current use and future potential of smartphones in the health and medical sector.

Understand the concept of smart ageing and the relationship between older people and technology

Smartphones are no longer a youth technology. They play a significant role in intergenerational relations and define ageing in the digital era. You’ll learn about the issues older people encounter when using smartphones and how technology has shaped models of ageing.

Using the latest research, you’ll find out more about ageing in different global contexts and learn how technology is shaping and changing the experience of ageing.

Discover the effect of smartphone use through the lens of digital anthropology

The course demonstrates the potential of anthropology as a discipline and will introduce you to the technicalities of using comparative anthropology as a method of research.

It also includes several new anthropological perspectives on the use of the smartphone and its impact on people’s lives.

Explore digital anthropology with UCL’s expert team

UCL is a leading research hub in the area of digital anthropology. You’ll access the latest research and insights from UCL’s expert academics on fascinating anthropological concepts and issues, including digital health and ageing.

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Skip to 0 minutes and 5 seconds The smartphone is often literally in front of our nose. So we think we know what it is, but do we? Well, to find out, 11 researchers each spent 16 months in communities based in Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America. The result is a whole series of original perspectives on the smartphone. For example, we call the smartphone our transportal home because maybe it’s not just a device we use, but it’s become a place within which we live. You may have heard the expression the death of distance, meaning we can contact people anywhere. But is this now marked by the death of proximity? When you ignore the person sitting next to you because you’re busy doing things in your smartphone home.

Skip to 0 minutes and 55 seconds One of the main expansions in smartphone use over recent years has been its adoption by older people. And in week two of the course, we focus upon the smartphone’s impact upon ageing. We also wanted our project to be useful. So we developed an alternative anthropological perspective on how smartphones can be employed in the area of health and welfare. This is the topic of week three of this course. The course also includes reference to particular issues of the day, such as the way smartphones facilitate both surveillance but also care. Because the fine balance between care and surveillance became a major issue in the response to the covid-19 pandemic.

Skip to 1 minute and 45 seconds So if you want to find out more about this thing that is right in front of your nose, please do take our course.


  • Week 1

    What are smartphones? How have they changed our lives?

    • Context

      Learn about the context of the Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing project, which is the foundation of this 3-week course.

    • Smartphone use in everyday life

      How should we view smartphones? They are handsets, but increasingly, it feels like they are mostly the place where we locate our apps. We talk about the role of apps in everyday life, the relationship between screens, and more.

    • Practical exercise and summary

      We ask you to try to replicate one of our research methodologies and sum up what we have discussed during the first week.

  • Week 2


    • Ageing today

      This section discusses the recent shift in the experience of ageing across different regions.

    • Age and smartphones

      How does smartphone use impact the process of ageing?

    • Contradiction and ambivalence

      We explore some of the things that people say about smartphones.

    • Practical exercise and summary

      This is where you will do this week's practical exercise and where we sum up week two.

  • Week 3

    Smartphones and health

    • Our approach to mHealth

      We initially considered making use of ethnographic information to assist in the development of mHealth initiatives but eventually changed direction. The following steps will reveal more about this approach.

    • Smartphones and health services

      In this section, we discuss how smartphones are used within healthcare systems. We also discuss the potential consequences of adopting messaging app technology for the purposes of patient care.

    • Use of mHealth in different fieldsites

      In this section, we delve into the specificities of each fieldsite and look at how mHealth is used locally.

    • Smartphones, health information, COVID-19

      We talk about issues related to accessing health information via smartphones and how smartphones had a great role to play during the COVID-19 pandemic.

    • Practical exercise, summary and conclusion

      Here is another practical exercise to help you reflect on some of the things you have learned about smartphones and health. This is also where we summarise and conclude the course!

When would you like to start?

Start straight away and join a global classroom of learners. If the course hasn’t started yet you’ll see the future date listed below.

  • Available now

Learning on this course

On every step of the course you can meet other learners, share your ideas and join in with active discussions in the comments.

What will you achieve?

By the end of the course, you‘ll be able to...

  • Explore how smartphones affect everything in people’s lives from their relationships to participation in cultural life through an anthropological lens.
  • Engage with and evaluate the cultural and social contexts of mobile health through ethnography.
  • Discuss how discourses about ageing manifest in different global contexts, as well as how ageing is being redefined in the digital era
  • Investigate different anthropological methodologies such as participant observation and holistic contextualisation, especially from a collaborative and comparative perspective.

Who is the course for?

This course is designed for people who are interested in understanding how the use of smartphones has changed our lives, as well as students keen to explore the contribution of anthropology to digital technologies.

What software or tools do you need?

To take part in this course, all you will need is the ability to do some digital anthropology, whether that is done on a smartphone, tablet, laptop or any other devices. You do not need any specific software to complete the course.

Who will you learn with?

Daniel Miller is Professor of Anthropology at University College London. He developed the Digital Anthropology programme at UCL. @DannyAnth

Postdoctoral Researcher at UCL. The author of 'Social Media in Industrial China' and co-author of 'How the World Changed Social Media'.

I am a PhD researcher at UCL Anthropology studying smartphones and ageing in Japan, and a Leach fellow in public anthropology at the Royal Anthropological Institute.

Assistant Professor of Anthropology. Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. Areas: verbal art; digital anthropology; use and adoption of new technologies by older adults.

Associate Professor of Anthropology, Maynooth University, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, Kildare, Ireland.

I'm a visual-digital anthropologist interested in visual and material culture, and media and social change. I have carried out ethnographic research in Iran, the UK, Italy, and online.

Postdoctoral fellow at UCL Anthropology
Lecturer at the Department of Communication and Journalism and The Swiss center for conflict resolution, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Research Fellow at UCL Anthropology & Lecturer Faculty of Sciences Education University of Yaoundé 1

Laila Abed Rabho, a Palestinian researcher living and working in al-Quds, expert in gender studies and Islamic law.

I am a PhD researcher on the ASSA project, and conducted a 16 month ethnography in Kampala, Uganda to learn about older people's health and their use of phones.

PhD in Communication and Consumption. Research on Smartphones, Ageing and Health. Member of GPECC Ethics Observatory. Research Fellow at UCL.

Public dissemination officer and research assistant on the ASSA project and an advocate for anthropology!

Who developed the course?

UCL (University College London)

UCL was founded in 1826. It was the first English university established after Oxford and Cambridge, and the first to open up university education to those previously excluded from it.

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Ways to learn

Choose the best way to learn for you!

Subscribe & save

$349.99 for one year

Automatically renews

Develop skills to further your career

  • Access to this course
  • Access to 1,000+ courses
  • Learn at your own pace
  • Discuss your learning in comments
  • Digital certificate when you're eligible

Cancel for free anytime

Buy this course

$109/one-off payment

Fulfill your current learning need

  • Access to this course
  • Learn at your own pace
  • Discuss your learning in comments
  • Printed and digital certificate when you’re eligible

Limited access


Sample the course materials

  • Access expires 3 Jul 2024

Find out more about certificates, Unlimited or buying a course (Upgrades)

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